What is Sin?
The most well-known definition of sin and the one which is most often used is found in 1 John 3:4. It says,
Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law. (1 John 3:4)
On the surface of it this text seems to be pretty straightforward. It seems to indicate that sin occurs when we transgress the law or when we disobey it. This would indicate that sin is an action. However It is interesting to note that most translations of the Bible render this text differently than the King James Version.
Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. (NRSV)
Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness. (NKJV)
Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. (NIV)
Every one that doeth sin doeth also lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness. (ASV)
In all these translations, sin is not defined as an action, but rather as a noun. They all say, “sin is lawlessness, making sin a state or a condition rather than an action. The original Greek rendering of the text justifies this translation.
There is no doubt that some will object strongly to this idea that sin is more than an action. If we are to accept such a concept, then surely we need stronger biblical evidence than this. Is there such evidence? There is in fact, an abundance of such evidence.
Sin is mentioned in several other places in the New Testament and in such a way that it seems that it is being defined. For example we have 1 John 5:17 and Romans 14:23. They say,
All unrighteousness is sin …. (1 John 5:17)
…. whatsoever is not of faith is sin. (Rom 14:23)
The second text is particularly interesting because it shows us that it is possible to sin even in the midst of the most pious duties if the motivation for these actions is not faith. There we have a suggestion that sin may be more than our actions and may be something that goes far deeper than simply the act of disobedience. But isn't this exactly what Jesus said? What is His meaning in the following verses?
(Mat 5:27-28) Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: (28) But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.
Jesus makes it plain that sin has to do with more than merely the outward actions, it has to do with the motives and the intents of the heart. Transgression of the law lies not only in the outward disobedience, but in the state of mind which cherishes and breeds that outward disobedience.
So then we see that the law condemns not just our actions but also our motives and intentions. This is because the righteousness required by the law goes much further than our behaviour.